The Barkley Marathons

(the race that eats its young)

David Biddle
Dec. 5,1996

I. Course Description

The Barkley Marathons are run in the Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area near Oak Ridge in Tennessee. The park is bordered by two prisons and a coal mine and is thirty five minutes away from closest the city. The course consists of a twenty mile loop, which for the most part traces the border of the park. The actual length of the course is an issue of large debate however. The twenty mile figure was derived by the race director from a topographic map. Most that have run the loop feel that it is longer, since the distance associated with elevation change and winding trails isn't taken into account. Some feel that the loop could be as long as twenty six miles. At the other end of the argument is the distance that was derived from a survey crew in who measured the park to make a new map in 1993. The distances they got for many portions of the course were actually shorter than Gary Cantrell had listed them to be. On any account the distance assumes that the runner does not get lost, which is a rarity at the Barkley.

The course is run on a variety of surfaces, none of which come close to ideal . Around 10% is run on rough dirt roads while 10% is run on old dirt roads which are now overgrown with grass. Approximately 20% is run on rough trails with 40% being on old abandoned trails which are said to be easily mistaken for the deer trails that are actually better. The remaining 20% is run on no trails at all but is actually bushwhacking through the forest.

To add to the difficulty of the trails is the extreme elevation changes. The re are ironically enough thirteen climbs which result in more than 10,000 feet of climb per loop. This is obviously accompanied by an equal amount of descent. One runner described it as climbing 100 floors of stairs in your first mile, going back down on second mile and continuing this for twenty miles. The course amasses an average grade of over 20% and between 50 and near 100 percent grade on the abandoned trails and bushwhacking sections. The grade is the reason that the trails have been abandoned or not built in the first pace. Each climb bears a unique name which in many cases gives a good idea of their nature. Some examples of this would be: Bird Mountain which rises 1,530 feet in under a mile and a quarter, Little Hell which climbs 1,240 feet in six tenths of a mile, Rat Jaw which uses only half of a mile to climb 1,020 feet and Big Hell which gains 1,600 feet of altitude in a mere three quarters of a mile. These are accompanied by some equally difficult descents like The Zip Line and Leonards Butt Slide. The Zip Line descends 1,600 feet in three quarters of a mile while Leonards Butt Slide uses only 350 yards to drop 600 feet of elevation. While many of the climbs and descents are straight up or down the mountain, some use switch backs. Bald Knob uses sixteen switch backs to reach the top while it takes seventeen grueling switch backs to reach the bottom of Bird Mountain.

As if the trails and elevation weren't enough Frozen also provides the runner s with bothersome foliage to deal with. It is common for runners to come across trees which have fallen across the path every 50 to 100 feet. Many of the trees cross the path at waist height or above which allows no easy passage. Getting around these obstacles late in the race with tired legs becomes a true challenge to runners. In addition to the trees nature provides heavy under brush and worst of all briars. These briars are especially profound on the climbs of Rat Jaw and Big Hell. They are so bad that they warrant special considerations in clothing. After completing a loop of the race a runner reported not only having briars stuck in his eyelids but also under them. Similarly, many of the descents, which require holding on to trees to slow the runner, are covered with thorn bearing locust trees. With the event of rain or high water levels the course provides even more challenges. Streams which are normally trickles can become large enough to consume a runner up to the waist while the trails can become a horrible, shoe stealing muddy path. These streams however also provide aid to the runners since there is little else. The course has only two unmanned aid stations, that provide only water. These stations can be up to six hours apart. Most runners do most of their refueling at the start/finish area and carry the rest with them.

To add the final touch to the course there are no markings. Participants are given a map marked with the location of between six and nine books which they must find. A runner proves that he has completed the loop by turning in a page from each book. Many times finding the books can be a challenge of its own especially in the dark. All of these factors combine to make a course that as race director Gary Cantrell says "will squash you like a bug."

II. Race History

The very first Barkley was run in 1977 by one man. He ran it with no aid stations, no map, no light and no provisions beyond a bag of wheat germ. The runner was the infamous James Earl Ray, the man convicted of murdering Martin Luther King jr.. He ran the woods of Frozen Head for 54 and one half hours while escaped from nearby Brushy Mountain State penitentiary. When he was captured only miles from the prison it was obvious that is was the surroundings that made the facility maximum security.

The first organized race was run in 1986. The course was designed by race director Gary Cantrell and high school friend Carl "Madd Dog" Henn. Henn, a mine inspector for the U.S. Bureau of Mines, had access to detailed topographic maps of the park and surroundings. With these, the two designed an incredibly challenging course around the park. The original course was three loops that constituted 55 miles. This race was run with a thirty six hour time limit and had no finishers the first two years. In 1988, Ed Furtaw jr., commonly referred to as Frozen Ed, became the first official finisher. Although one runner had actually finished ahead of him this runner was disqualified for cutting the course.

The following year the 100 mile race was added with a 48 hour time limit. After having its first finisher in 1988, the Barkley lashed back, claiming another year of no finishers. To this point in the race's history, there was only one finisher and 89 did not finishes(DNF). In 1990, a field that included runners from Germany and Switzerland provided five finishers in the 55 fun run. Two of these runners actually finished in under 36 hours which made them eligible to run the hundred but neither chose to go on. The winner in 1990 was David Horton, an accomplished runner who holds the record for the Appalachian trail, who finished with a time of 26 hours and 22 minutes. One interesting story from this race was about the Swiss runner Milan Milanovich. He had taken very accurate compass bearings before the race which helped him to get around the course more easily at night. In addition to his compass readings however he had brought only a small pen light.

The 1991 Barkley was one run in heavy rain and flooding conditions. Ten runne rs from Russia and two from Poland joined the Americans for what would be another record finish. One of the Russians however dropped out of the race only after seeing the course before the race. Ten runners finished the fun run while again no one even attempted the hundred. Of the ten that finished two were women and two were from Russia. The women were Suzi Thibeault and Nancy Hamilton. The total for the Barkley was now 16 finishes in 126 attempts. The same year Eric Clifton set a record for one and two laps by doing them in 6:19:43 and 15:05:04, however he was too tired from these to attempt a third lap. Eleven of thirty two runners finished in 1993 to best the 1991 finish and set the current record for most finishers. Nancy Hamilton once again finished the Barkley this year tieing for sixth with her husband.

For the 1994 race the time limit was extended to 60 hours, the longest of any 100 mile race. The hundred had not been attempted yet and would not be challenged again in 1994. In fact, only one runner would finish the fun run which was started by 34. The runner was the infamous David Horton who completed yet another unbelievable feat by finishing under 24 hours. After crossing the finish line Horton did little gloating however, he instead headed directly for the showers. A short time later some of the handlers reported that he was in shower moaning and crying. He was quoted by one as saying "I can't believe it hurts so bad."

April 1,1995 brought about another Barkley. This year the fun run was extend ed to 60 miles with a 40 hour time limit, a change that was kept secret till the day of the race. Six runners eventually finished the fun run, three of which were eligible to continue on to the 100. Only one runner chose to do so however.

Mark Williams, a 6'-1", 160 pound, self employed computer programmer from England went on to do what no one else had ever done or has done since, finish the Barkley 100. The 29 year old Williams crossed the finish line in 2 days, 11 hours, and 29 minutes. As soon as he crossed the finish line he sat down on the spot and did not move for over an hour. He had only slept 15 minutes the first night and one hour the second night and the second night included 40 minutes of "over-sleeping." He reported having hallucinations due to fatigue while on the course.

The 1996 Barkley had provided 24 runners with off and on segments of hard driving rain to compliment the impossible course. After being conquered the previous year the Barkley took revenge. Of the 24 starters only two would finish loop two. The two runners, Mark Williams and Craig Wilson, would go on to finish the third loop in 34 hours and 58 minutes, well off Williams 1995 pace. Neither chose to attempt the 100. One interesting occurrence during this years running happened to two veteran runners, Jim Dill and Cliff Hoy. At the top one climb called Indian Knob they had lost their direction and descended directly to the Brushy Mountain prison. The runners were forced at gun point to lie on the ground while the guards verified that there was actually a race going on. When they were cleared, they were sent back up the hill with threats of arrest if they returned. Threats at gun point could now be added to the list of trials the Barkley provides.

III. Gary Cantrell

It would be impossible to truly understand the Barkley Marathons without some discussion of the man that aspired to make the toughest race there was, Gary Cantrell. Gary was described by Geraldine Wales as the only runner she knew that smoked. She went on to describe a 48-hour race she saw him run in which he totaled 134 miles. He went into the race without smoking a cigarette for two weeks and the idea that he needed to run 120 miles to earn his six dollar entry fee. Although quitting cigarettes was an idea brought up and enforced by his wife, Gary has been described as a very determined runner. He ran to the point of total exhaustion in the previously mentioned race and yet continued to run requiring a five minute break after each lap.

The best way to understand the man though may be through his actions surrounding his race. His entry procedures for example prove very unique. The entry form says that 25 entrants will be selected "by whim," however the choice is ultimately his. Apparently the easiest way to lose a chance to run the race is to ask him for any information about the course. Even if you ask him to send you an entry form you won't necessarily get one. The entry form includes such rules as no Women, Children, Californians, soccer fans, Marines, Yankees, Wimps, Worms, Slugs or Weeniies and especially no Health fascists. He also provides a reason why each may not enter, however these rules are obviously not followed. Entry also requires an essay from each runner on "Why I should be allowed to run in the Barkley." He asks that you include discussion on such topics as unnecessary surgery, Tommy Lasorda, uninspected poultry, duck costumes, investment bankers and unwanted hairs. The form also includes such other off beat questions like the one asking why "You can never know too much about fungus," or the one asking whait is your "favorite parasite?" Once you have completed his form and enclosed your $1.55 he asks you address it not to him but to Idiot.

Many other parts of the race give a good picture of the man. For example the race has no concrete day on which it is run or time which it will start. The day, which is usually April Fools Day ironically enough, is not announced so as to deter bandits, however the time is not announced so Gary can sleep till he wants. Once he has gotten up he blows a Conch shell or horn before the race so that the runners know. Once the runners have assembled he gives a customary pig call and then lights a cigarette, rather than shooting a gun to begin the race. As the runners complete the course they come to the books to take a page. Gary picks titles such as "Never Let Them See You Cry" and "There May Be Thorns." Other race customs include the night before chicken roast and the awarding of the mug. His chicken is rumored to be barely cooked by the runners. The mug is not the normal kind of award that races give out. It is actually a traveling award in which the runner who wins keeps it only for the year after he won. The engraved part of the mug listed "0" as the finishers for 1986, 1987 and 1989 while it lists the Three Stooges for 1990. The Mug however was not returned one year so the Barkley now has no award.

IV. The Barkley Mystique

The Barkley is a race with a reputation unlike any other. The most obvious reason for this is its inconceivable difficulty. This is obvious from the Fun Run's 15% finish rate, however most feel that it is impossible to truly understand its difficulty till you have actually run it. As Cantrell says on his entry form, "To know the Barkley is to humility and fear." It has also become internationally known as the hardest race there is. This reputation became most prominent outside of the United States when the famous runner Ulrich "Ulli" Kamm earned his first DNF for a trail ultra in over a hundred races. Adding to this reputation is the fact that race rules do not allow pacers and that there is practically no aid on the course. Unbelievable stories from runners add to this mystique. One runner claimed to have blisters high up on the sides of his feet from traversing the incredibly steep terrain. Another runner claimed to need to eat over a pound of food per loop to keep up energy. Whether or not these stories are true the race remains to be the hardest there is. In fact it is the only race where dropping out is still a challenge. A runner that drops out must still hike all the way back to camp.

To add to the race's difficulty is its unpredictable weather. It has been ru n in temperatures from 0 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Precipitation in the form of rain as well as snow, sleet and hail seems to occur more often than not. The unpredictable weather of the area becomes just another part of the races mystique.

It is also important to note the lack of respect the Barkley gets from the ultra runners who stick to paved surfaces. Road runners often choose to label the race as a survival test and not a race at all. These runners have a hard time rationalizing that a 30 minute mile could be very good. Stories from runners like one man who did 8.2 miles I eleven and one half hours or from the man that quit after 11 miles seems ridiculous to those who only know the comfort of the road. The true mystique of the race comes from the inability to compare it with anything else.

V. Personal Remarks

The nature of this race is very ambigous and most of the information that I gathered could be considered opinion just as much as factual. At the same time, the Barkley is one of the most interesting races in running today and deserves such recognition. I believe that the race will continue for years and when the time comes that Gary Cantrell choses not to or can not hold the race another will take the responsibility. I also feel that runners will become more and more prepared for the Barkley and some day there will be a muliple finish for the hundred. However, such a course will always bring out the voice inside a runner that says "Mommy its too hard, I want to quit."

*Information from Ultra Running magazine and personal responses. *Special Thanks to: Matt Mahoney, Ray Krolewicz, Frozen Ed Furtaw, Doug Barrows, Nick Williams, Geraldine Wales, Suzi Thibeault, Don Davis